As a child my interactions with the Church of England (via primary school) and the Catholic Church (St. Marie's in Sheffield city centre every day at 7am in the school holidays with my Nan) made me anxious. I was (and still can be when the wind blows the right way) a very dutiful & loyal person. I took things seriously. I tried praying a lot and got really upset when God never spoke back to me. I felt like I wasn't "good enough". I redoubled my efforts and my prayers turned into destructive thought patterns e.g. 'If I hold my breath long enough for ten cars to pass then God will let me into heaven'. Imagine it- my chubby asthmatic body wheezing after holding its breath for Jesus' love.
In a school assembly they told us that we had to love all of God's creatures so that night when I went home and found an ant infestation, I felt weird. I knew the ants weren't meant to be in my bathroom but they were God's creatures, right? So what would Jesus do? Would Jesus let his toes get nibbled by ants in the name of love? I told my Mum about the ants with a smile on my face (which didn't impress her). She stamped on them. I felt guilty because they were dead...and because I was relieved I could urinate without ants on my feet.
I was never baptised or christened & this was a constant source of guilt. I deeply wanted the wine and the biscuits and told my Nan as much after church one painfully early morning. She laughed. But it was no laughing matter! I wanted to decide whether to be a chewer or a melter (methods of treating the holy sacrament/biscuit)! Instead I had to cross my arms on my chest (like some kind of self-exorcising devil child). Then when I got to the front of the queue the priest would draw a cross on my head with his thumb. I stopped washing my forehead for a few days to see if I got holier.
On holiday with a family friend I played with an Irish girl on the beach. She asked when I had my first communion whilst patting out a slumped sand castle. I told her when I was 9 (lie) & felt guilty for the rest of the day. I was confused. I thought your first communion was like getting married to God. I wanted to wear the dress but me and God had already been going steady for years & he never answered any of my prayers. I was writing to a big sky boyfriend who never wrote back.
I put all my pocket money on the collection plate. I scolded myself every time I stared up at the ceiling instead of listening to the priest or vicar. I just wanted one reply, it didn't even need to be anything special. A simple out of office would have sufficed.
I was sure that God wrote back to R_____ in my class. Her Mum & Dad were still together & she had pretty hair. Everyone liked her & all the girls wanted to be her friend. She was always called a sweetie by the teachers. Yeah, she would scribble on my work, kick me under the table & call me names but I never told the teacher. In Sunday school they told us that whatever we felt, Jesus had felt it before. They said he was with us in our hour of need. That he was all we needed to get through. I wondered which one of the disciples had pulled Jesus' hair. I felt it was probably Mark.
I was confused about Values vs. Practice. I didn't understand why all the Mums at school could bring tonnes of tinned fruit salad in for the harvest table for the 'needy' but act so coldly to anyone who needed anything outside of church. My Mum was 20 when she had me & we were a single parent family. From what I understood my Dad wasn't well enough to be around us so we just went it alone. I was aware very early on that the rest of the Mums did not like my Mum. Not one smidge. Equally early I became aware that the Dads very much liked my Mum. Or at least they liked looking at her. I started feeling annoyed when Mum turned up to collect me looking pretty. Why couldn't she just wear anoraks and comfy shoes so we could fit in?! Here I was staying up late praying (very timid, sycophantic, anxious prayers) to become "good enough" & my Mum could help out immensely by just being a bit more repressed & ugly!
The only person who would speak to my Mum was the only other single Mum, S____. It seemed like the other Mums wanted to show God they were nice when they were in his house, but didn't give too much of a shit in the playground. The vicar with the bald head and the guitar told us God could see us everywhere. He made all the mountains & the birds. He had the power & the glory. Had they forgotten?
The situation got more intensely stressful one night when my Mum told me she didn't believe in God. She said she had tried but it just wasn't her so she gave up. A huge bolder sized lump rose in my throat & I squeaked out
'Jesus wouldn't have given up!' Which as an adult I can see is a bit meta. At the time I was scrambling to be a good Christian. It was just another job to do. I had to make my Mum believe in God, convince the other Mums to be nice to her, stop thinking bad thoughts about R____, pray all the time, be one of Jesus' sunbeams, polish my shoes, treat every woodlouse like a long lost friend. The list was endless. I truly believed that if could get all the elements right like plate spinning then suddenly God's warmth would shine down on me. We just needed to fit in, on the playground, at church, in school. We just needed to be "good enough".
S_____ invited us to her house one day after school & I played with her daughter (dolly hospital, if you must know) whilst she washed my Mum's hands. She'd seen that the nails were bitten and the cuticles red raw. It was a simple gesture. A kind gesture. It was a friendly hand up amongst the dross of daily life. I thought she was a curly, blonde-haired, scouse, Lady -Jesus. She became one of my idols, instantly.
I'd been switching between CofE God's house & Catholic God's house for years. Then, I became aware that other religions existed because some people had to sit outside of assembly in the library every day (A+ for Demon Headmaster vibes). I asked A____ and she said she was Hindu. Another girl said her family went to church but only on Wednesdays. 'Phew, there are even more?' I thought. I didn't understand that you picked one and got on with it. I thought you had to tune into each like a TV channel. Every new religion was like a new tamagotchi (but much less fun). I struggled to keep them alive.
This sense of anxiety & urgency has stayed with me. I understand now, that the middle class Mums of the world will never like me and my Mum. That we were just too poor, and common, and attractive (in the case of my Mum) & "husky" (Kirkby talk for "fat" in the case of me) to be "good enough" for them. Religion, conformity, guilt, it stays with you long after you leave the playground. It's a reminder that for some of us, no matter how much we play by the rules, how many woodlouse nests we build or 50ps we give to God we will never feel accepted.
I still feel sentimental about church. Especially the Catholic Church, no offense CofE, you just weren't punishing enough. When someone says a line from the service the line after slips out of my mouth before I register it. I don't pray. I always got the same feeling praying that I did when I asked groups of kids with light up trainers 'Can I play with you?' and got ignored. It's okay. The space in my head I used to devote to God I try to devote to my earth based partners, my friends. There is a sense of loss. This presumed standard of spirituality is palpable in my work place, in legislation, in most educational institutions (even the non-denominational ones). Christianity as a structure permeating our consciences from birth like McDonald's adverts (ba da ba ba ba- I'm lovin' God), offering people around the world food and water as long as they pray right & read the Bible, excavate their culture & plant seeds of ours.
I still get defensive when people close to me shut me down mid Catholic guilt rant, or sentimental Christian monologue. This is my history, my Nan, her friends, good people. I am still not "good enough", I may never be. My relationship with Christianity is, like all my relationships- queered. Neo-marxist but stubborn, I want redemption but resent never hearing from God, it's like not hearing back about a job you spent 12 years applying for.
Smug atheist attacks don't sit well with me. Isn't this whole life malarkey difficult enough already without you looking up Doris from Hathersage online to tell her that the scarf she's knitting to raise money at a raffle for a new church roof is pointless because God doesn't exist? Let Doris knit her scarf. Let Mohammed pray in peace. Let Siobhan do her happiness spell. Let Alex spend Sunday washing their dog. We've all got our own shit to be getting on with. If you're really that bored there's a new season of Hell's Kitchen on Netflix. If you're really so lonely you want to take away someone else's spiritual companionship you could always try talking to someone.
The last time I was in a church 2014- S______'s funeral. She had a difficult life, after all her Lady-Jesus miracles, and died a horrifically early death. Her family & the women around me are of the strong Scouse Catholic breed not a tear in sight (apart from my Mum who is the only one to break down crying, like the big Lancashire, agnostic, emotionally present, wool she is).
My best friend, S_____'s daughter is literally unwavering, holding her daughter, at the front of the church after organising the whole funeral. Today, I'm in perfect timing, I am peak Catholic, burying the hurt, wearing black, singing the hymns, getting through. I don't want to do all my mourning now.
The priest seems fixated on the fact that S_____ didn't balance all the plates, tick all the boxes. He keeps reminding us that she'll go to heaven despite straying from God's path. I'm winded by his audacity. Never a holier, more honest, loving person had entered my life. We sing more hymns. The church smells of lilies. It's light and airy, like her.
Mum is still snotting on my shoulder, she doesn't make it to the crematorium. Outside the wake, a large ram packed room, I think that S____'s holiness was in her actions. She was a good person so religion showed her goodness. I am an anxious person so religion created more things to be anxious about. At 13 my brief, rebellious flirt with paganism too left me anxiously waiting for my spells to work. My only option is to stop trying to be "good enough" & just try to be good. Even so, I wish I could have tasted the biscuity body of Christ, drank his alcoholic blood and played with the good Christians, just once.